Self/less stars Ben Kingsley as a construction billionaire who, upon finding out that he’s dying, makes a deal with a mysterious and shady scientist to transfer his consciousness into a young body that looks a whole lot like Ryan Reynolds. Evil scientist tells Kingsley that he grew the body in a lab, but weird flashbacks after the transfer suggest otherwise.
It’s old-fashioned paranoid ’70s sci-fi, directed with a visual flair by Tarsem, best known for The Cell and R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion” video. The movie’s screenplay was written by brothers Alex and David Pastor. They talked to Military.com about the movie, which opens in theaters this week.
Okay, well, let’s explain the premise of the movie to an audience that doesn’t know anything about it. So you guys wrote this film. What’s it about and how did you get the idea?
DAVID PASTOR: It’s a story of an aging millionaire who has all the money in the world and who’s running out of time because of cancer. He gets offered an incredible opportunity, which is to transfer his consciousness into a young, healthy body in exchange for all his money.
What happens once you accept that deal and then you realize the price that comes with that deal and the dark underbelly of that deal? What could go wrong? You know just have your consciousness transferred to a younger, healthier body. What could possibly go wrong? So that’s what the movie is about, you know what things go wrong.
The idea comes from all these millionaires, these very successful people who are on top of the world. When you learn that they’re ill, that they may be dying, you wonder, “Wow, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. It may not be able to save you and it doesn’t matter how successful one person is.” I would never trade places with a person if that person was running out of time.
We started wondering, well, what if that was not true? What if your money could really save you and what if there was actually somebody who would trade places with you? And that was essentially the origin of the story.
Did you do any research into the science behind all this?
ALEX PASTOR: We researched the fact that this kind of technology is actually being developed, especially downloading consciousness and memories into hard drives, into computers, but even also into organic tissues, into brain tissue.
So we knew that this was not too far-fetched. Of course, it’s still science fiction because nobody has been able to do it successfully. But the fact that it could exist, that was enough for us. In the movie, we don’t get into much detail on how the device or the science behind it actually works, because at the end of the day we think that it’s not what people care about. What people care about are characters and the consequences of the characters’ actions, the mystery and the suspense after the transfer happens.
The example that we like to use is Inception. In Inception they explain the rules of the dream world, but they don’t tell you how the device itself works. You know that you plug yourself to it, other people plug themselves to the same box, and everybody is in the same dream, period. We think that’s enough.
You’re brothers. What’s your work process like?
DAVID: Well, Alex and I have been working together for a long time and it just comes very natural to us. I think that the fact that we are brothers helps. I think if you’re gonna work with somebody, writing together and especially directing together, you need to be very much in sync to make sure that you’re both pulling in the same direction and there’s not two people trying to make two different kind of movies, which is a recipe for disaster. I think that being brothers helps a lot. For us, the creative process is mostly in dialogue and discussion. Out of that dialogue and the discussion, the screenplay emerges.
Didn’t this screenplay get named to the movie industry’s Black List of best unproduced screenplays?
DAVID: After we had sold the script back in 2011, it appeared on the Black List, which is a survey of industry professionals in L.A. and New York asking them what are the best scripts that they have read that year that haven’t been made yet. So it’s become a little bit of an informal list of the best scripts that are out there.
And you know the fact that it made it into the Black List definitely helped the project to get traction when it comes to finding a director, to finding an actor. It’s always nice to know that someone out there likes your stuff.
You worked with a director, Tarsem, who has made some really visually inventive films
ALEX: Well, it was great to have a director on board with such a strong sense of style and visual personality. He came and he had some notes on the script. Not many. Actually, we rewrote the script more to Ryan Reynolds’ taste. Ryan had a lot of thoughts on the script and he had very good points. We shaped it to him a little bit.
DAVID: Which is great, because his point of view was very much story-driven. It was our first time writing for like a movie star and there’s always that concern that it’s gonna be all about him. But then you sit down with him and you realize that the guy is actually not only very handsome, but also very smart, and that his thoughts go very much into how can we make the movie better instead of how can we make him look better. So in that sense, it was a very pleasant surprise.
Is it true that Ben Kingsley’s character was inspired by “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses?
DAVID: I read that book many years ago and it’s fantastic. It’s definitely a time commitment because it’s a thousand-plus pages. It’s such an amazing achievement, especially if you live in New York like we do. Every day around you, you see the consequences of Robert Moses and his achievements, both positive and negative, and what he did for the city. There was a theme in the book that he wanted to build bridges. He didn’t want to build tunnels. He wanted to build bridges because you see bridges, they are there. They’re a monument that you can see, while tunnels are just a hole in the ground.
So there was something about Ben’s character: when you are in the construction business, when you are shaping a city, this object, this building that becomes a monument to your own ego. And that’s what went into the character.